They hang like coffins, more than 800 steel plates suspended from the ceiling, each representing a county in the United States where a lynching took place. Engraved on the broad face of each plate are the names of the victims and the days they were lynched: “Benjamin Hart, 05.08.1887,” “Maggie House, 12.21.1918,” “Unknown, 11.20.1899.” Some plates contain dozens of names.
At the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, more than 4,000 victims of racist terror are remembered over the heads of visitors.
On Tuesday morning, President Donald Trump compared the House impeachment inquiry into his conduct to “a lynching,” generating a firestorm of condemnation.
Trump wrote: “So some day, if a Democrat becomes President and the Republicans win the House, even by a tiny margin, they can impeach the President, without due process or fairness or any legal rights. All Republicans must remember what they are witnessing here – a lynching. But we will WIN!”
The history Trump invoked is brutal.
Lynching is the extrajudicial murder of an untried suspect, usually by a mob and often by hanging. In the United States, 4,743 lynchings were recorded between 1882 and 1968, according to the NAACP. Of those murdered people, 3,446 were black men, women and children – about 73%. Research by the Equal Justice Initiative, which created the lynching memorial, found a different number of black victims: about 4,400 between 1877 and 1950.
Lynching victims were often tortured before they died, and after death their corpses frequently desecrated. Such was the case for Matthew Williams, who was lynched in Salisbury, Maryland, in 1931.
As The Washington Post’s DeNeen L. Brown wrote last year, Williams was accused of killing a white man over a pay dispute, which he denied. He had been shot in the leg and was in a hospital when he was tied in a straitjacket, thrown out a window and stabbed with ice picks by a mob.
They dragged him three blocks and tied a noose around his neck, taunting him and raising and lowering his body. After he had died by hanging, the mob drove his body through a black neighborhood, cutting off body parts and throwing them onto black families’ porches, shouting “Make n– sandwiches!”
Using lynching to taunt other African Americans is by no means unique to the murder of Williams. In fact, racial intimidation was the point. When Cleo Wright was lynched in Sikeson, Missouri, in 1942, his wife was forced to identify his body by the white mob who murdered him. His corpse was then burned in front of two black churches full of worshipers.
The legacy of lynching echoes through to today. A sign marking the site where 14-year-old Emmett Till’s body was found in 1955 was shot up so many times that the newest version was made out of bulletproof material.
Other lynching victims, like Henry Smith, were burned alive. Smith was accused of killing a white girl in Paris, Texas, in 1893. A posse captured him, paraded him through town on a carnival float, tortured him before a crowd of 10,000, and then set him on fire. People in the crowd clamored for pieces of bone to keep as souvenirs.
Sometimes, the white mob took photos to sell souvenir postcards. There are postcards showing the 1916 lynching of teenager Jesse Washington in Waco, Texas.
So, for comparison, impeachment is not a lawless mob committing murder but a group of democratically elected officials following a process laid out in the U.S. Constitution for the potential removal of a president. The president is simply removed from office, not from this earth.
The current impeachment inquiry is not the first to be compared to lynching, as Princeton historian Kevin Kruse, pointed out in a Tuesday morning tweet.
“. . . This isn’t the first time people have referred to an impeachment proceeding against a president as a “lynching” — it came up often when conservatives tried to defend Richard Nixon in the Watergate investigation,” Kruse wrote.
And, though Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., told reporters he agreed with Trump, calling it “a lynching in every sense,” the comparison largely drew condemnation from across the political world, from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to Rep. Karen Bass and presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren.
Bass wrote, “You are comparing a constitutional process to the PREVALENT and SYSTEMATIC brutal torture of people in THIS COUNTRY that looked like me? “
Bush tweeted: “The President is not a victim. He should be the most powerful person on the planet. To equate his plight to lynching is grotesque.”